One of the greatest plays of all time is The Misanthrope written by Moliere in 1666. Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673) was born into a prosperous middle-class French family and studied law and philosophy before becoming an actor at the age of 21 and assuming the name of Moliere. He became the head of a theatrical company that eventually was a great success thanks to the comedies he wrote and in which he acted. In 1662 at the age of 40, he married Armande Bejart who was less than half his age and the marriage was very unhappy as she was capricious and flirtatious---but she was an accomplished actress. Ironically Moliere died of a hemorrhage while playing the title role in his comedy The Hypochondriac.
Some who have studied The Misanthrope feel that it is semi-autobiographical because the story is about a man, Alceste, in love with a woman, Celimene, who is capricious and flirtatious. Alceste is a man which very strong convictions about telling the truth and avoiding flattery. His best friend is Philinte who takes a much more laid back attitude about life. Alceste is the one the play is named after as he is the misanthrope in the story---a person who hates everything. He even hates Celimene at the same time that he is deeply in love with her.
Alceste argues with Philinte about the need to be dogmatic in telling the truth---even if it costs you all kinds of opportunities.
Philinte: “When someone greets us with a show of pleasure
It’s but polite to give him equal measure”
Alceste: “No no, this formula you’d have me follow,
However fashionable, is false and hollow,
“These lavishers of meaningless embraces,
These utterers of obliging commonplaces,
Who court and flatter everyone on earth
And praise the fool no less than the man of worth.”
“Esteem is founded on comparison:
To honor all men is to honor none.”
Philinte: “In certain cases it would be uncouth
And most absurd to speak the naked truth;
With all respect for your exalted notions,
It’s often best to veil one’s true emotions.
Wouldn’t the social fabric come undone
If we were wholly frank with everyone?
Suppose you met with someone you couldn’t bear;
Would you inform him of it then and there?”
“I fall into deep gloom and melancholy
When I survey the scene of human folly,
Finding on every hand base flattery,
Injustice, fraud, self-interest, treachery…
Ah, it’s too much; mankind has grown so base,
I mean to break with the whole human race.”
Philinte: “I’ll tell you plainly that by being frank
You’ve earned the reputation of a crank,
And that you’re thought ridiculous when you rage
And rant against the manners of the age.”
“Must all poor human creatures be embraced,
Without distinction, by your vast distaste?
Even in these bad times, there are surely a few…”
Alceste: “No, I include all men in one dim view:
Some men I hate for being rogues: other others
I hate because they treat the rogues like brothers,”
“My God! It chills my heart to see the ways
Men come to terms with evil nowadays;
Sometimes, I swear, I’m moved to flee and find
Some desert land unfouled by humankind.
Philinte: “Come, let’s forget the follies of the times
And pardon mankind for its petty crimes;
Let’s have an end of rantings and of railings,
And show some leniency toward human failings.
“Good sense views all extremes with detestation,
And bids us to be noble in moderation.
The rigid virtues of the ancient days
Are not for us;
They jar with all our ways
And ask of us too lofty a perfection.
Wise men accept their times without objection,
“I take men as they are, or let them be,
And teach my soul to bear their frailty:”
However, when it comes to Celimene, the woman he loves, Alceste is rather different in the way he acts. Philinte points this out to him with the following line:
“How is it that the traits you most abhor
Are bearable in this lady you adore?”
“Her charm outweighs her faults; I can but aim
To cleanse her spirit in my love’s pure flame.”
At one point Celimene says of Alceste:
“What other people think, he can’t abide;
Whatever they say, he’s on the other side;
He lives in deadly terror of agreeing;
‘Twould make him seem an ordinary being.
Indeed, he’s so in love with contradiction,
He’ll turn against his most profound conviction
And with a furious eloquence deplore it,
If only someone else is speaking for it.”
As Celimene has numerous suitors after her, they have other ways of viewing her. One such is Acaste who says of Celimene:
“I see her charms and graces, which are many;
But as for faults, I’ve never noticed any.”
To which Alceste responds:
“I see them, Sir; and rather than ignore them,
I strenuously criticize her for them.
The more one loves, the more one should object
To every blemish, every least defect.”
To this Celimene responds with:
“If all hearts beat according to your measure,
The dawn of love would be the end of pleasure;”
Celimene’s female cousin Eliante then says:
“Love, as a rule, affects men otherwise,
And lovers rarely love to criticize.
They see their lady as a charming blur,
And find all things commendable in her.
If she has any blemish, fault, or shame,
They will redeem it by a pleasing name.
The pale-faced lady’s lily-white, perforce;
The swarthy one’s a sweet brunette, of course;
The spindly lady has a slender grace;
The fat one has a most majestic pace;
The plain one, with her dress in disarray,
They classify as beaute negligee;
The hulking one’s a goddess in their eyes,
The dwarf, a concentrate of Paradise;
The haughty lady has a noble mind;
The mean one’s witty, and the dull one’s kind;
The chatterbox has liveliness and verve,
The mute one has a virtuous reserve.
So lovers manage, in their passion’s cause,
To love their ladies even for their flaws.”
(Note: At this point in writing this down, I turned to my wife and teen age niece and asked them what kind of man they would like to have in their life. The kind like Acaste--- who only flatters you or the kind like Alceste who points out your flaws. My niece said Acaste, because I expect to be perfect. My wife said Alceste because I want to be told that my hair does not look right and my dress is out of style---and then be given the money to go to the beauty parlor and then but a new dress. Remember, this play is meant to be a comedy!)
So, how would you like your suitor to talk to you?
Later in the play Alceste and Philinte are arguing once again about how to respond to life.
Alceste: “Do you propose to offer lame excuses
For men’s behavior and the times’ abuses?
Philinte: “No, all you say I’ll readily concede:
This is a low, conniving age indeed;
Nothing but trickery prospers nowadays,
And people ought to mend their shabby ways.
Yes, man’s a beastly creature; but must we then
Abandon the society of men?”
“If every heart were frank and kind and just.
What could our virtues do but gather dust
(Since their employment is to help us bear
The villainies of men without despair)?”
At the end of the story, Alceste plans on going off somewhere away from society which he detests. Celimene has rejected his offer of marriage and intends to continue to have numerous flattering young men pursing her. Philinte intends to marry Eliante who also rejects Alceste’s proposal.
To appreciate this play you really have to watch it performed as a comedy with Alceste being seen as a humorous, not a tragic figure. So why is a person that wants to see people be honest with one another a fool rather than a hero? The key reason is that he is unable to laugh at himself. He lacks the maturity needed to have a sense of humor. Assuming that the play is somewhat autobiographical, Moliere is laughing at himself as he is the Alceste character in love with a flirtatious woman.